In response to this post by brutereason, my friend Camille of gaywrites asked me the other night if it is considered ableist to expect Autistic people to know about boundaries and consent, and I explained that it is actually ableist to not expect Autistic people to know about boundaries and consent. A part of the neurodiversity movement is for people to presume competence and to hold Autistic people to the same standards of basic human decency as non-Autistic people. A lot of times parents of Autistic children will say something like “Oh, they are Autistic. They can’t help it.” when the child does something like hugging someone without their consent or otherwise violating someone’s boundaries. This does more harm than good for Autistic people because it teaches the autistic person that it’s ok for them violate the boundaries of others and that it’s ok for their boundaries to be violated in return because they were never taught how to see and respect other’s boundaries.
The only difference between non-Autistic people and Autistic people learning about boundaries is the strategies used to teach them. Autistic people naturally have difficulty reading facial expressions and body language so it’s important to be direct. For example, when someone doesn’t want to be touched, they withdraw and pull away from the person. An Autistic person who has trouble reading this kind of body language might not know that the person doesn’t want to be touched and continues to try to touch them. In this instance, the non-Autistic person should say “I don’t want to be touched. Please don’t touch me.”
It is also important to teach people on the autism spectrum how to set their own boundaries and to make sure they are respected. This can start early in childhood. For example, some autistic people have some sort of comfort item whether it’s a stuffed animal, a pen, etc. Let’s say there are two children playing together. One is autistic and named Chris and the other is Sam who is not autistic. Chris has a teddy bear that is their comfort item, but Sam wants to play with it. Sam reaches to grab the teddy bear, but Chris pulls away and says “No! My bear!”. Sam tries to grab their bear again anyway. Sam and Chris’s parents see what is going on and tries to intervene. Chris’s parent says “Chris, you need to not be selfish and let Sam have a turn with the bear.” and takes the bear away from Chris and gives it to Sam. Chris begins to have a meltdown because they don’t have their comfort item, but Chris’s parent says “You’ll get your bear back after Sam has played with it.” Chris’s parent violated Chris’s boundaries with their bear and taught Chris that they shouldn’t have their boundaries respected by not noticing that Chris was trying to communicate that their boundaries weren’t being respected through their meltdown. What Chris’s parent should have done was ask Chris “Is it ok if Sam plays with your bear for a little while?” and, if Chris said “No.”, then Sam’s parent should have told Sam “Chris doesn’t want you play with their bear, and that’s ok. How’s about we find you something different to play with?” This not only teaches the autistic person to set their own boundaries, but it also teaches others to respect the boundaries of autistic people.
TL;DR: In short, Autistic people can and should respect boundaries, and non-autistic people can and should communicate those boundaries in a way that makes sense to the autistic person and expect the autistic person to respect those boundaries.